For the past few years, certainly since the lockout season, the identities of the usual suspects on the Senators’ top line were as comfortable and familiar as Jason Spezza’s signature giggle or Daniel Alfredsson’s Scandinavian calm.
In the wake of the departure of Diminished Dany Heatley, the Senators, fans and media can renew the annual game of making up lines.
With the 2-for-1 Heatley deal bringing in Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek from the San Jose Sharks, and the signing of free agent Alexei Kovalev, the Senators’ perennial search for a forward worthy of the label “top six,” to top up their top-end half-dozen, finally seems to have ended.
In the pre-season when everyone can be optimistic, we’ll assume Cheechoo can reverse the trend which has seen him tumble since his magical 56-goal season in 2005-06. It can be presumed Michalek, after three years ensconced in the 23-26 goal range, can find a way to use his obvious physical gifts to make himself a 30-goal scorer.
It might be a bit much to ask, but not totally out of the question. Senators coach Cory Clouston has more options at this point than any of his predecessors going back to Jacques Martin.
“We’re going to try a lot more combinations. We have a lot more options than last year because we have more depth up front,” said Alfredsson. “We’ll push each other and take the pressure off each other.”
Spezza, Alfredsson, Kovalev, Cheechoo, Michalek and Mike Fisher (yeah, I know, the Fisher debate can still go on) form the current top six with Nick Foligno pushing to potentially be the centre on the second line or as a winger.
So, how to put the pieces together?
At yesterday’s practice, Michalek skated in Heatley’s spot to the left of Spezza and Alfredsson.
The new landscape probably represents the biggest change to Spezza, who likely played with Heatley at some point in every game for which they both were dressed over the past four seasons.
Spezza said yesterday he liked Michalek’s presence.
“He’s a big, strong guy who can skate well,” said Spezza. “I think it will work.”
“For sure, it’s great to be with these two players. I was always watching them before our games (in San Jose) because of the time difference. It was a lot of fun watching them,” said Michalek.
The three of them are in the lineup for tonight’s game vs. the Canadiens in Montreal.
It will be interesting to see how much time they spend together and whether their skill sets will complement each other.
Spezza clicked with Heatley and while it’s easy to categorize Heatley as the finisher and Spezza as the disher, Spezza said yesterday it doesn’t have to be a case of opposites attracting.
“There’s not really any rhyme or reason,” he said of chemistry between players. “As much as it might look like things are natural, it takes a lot of work. Dany and I talked a lot, put a lot of work into understanding each other’s games. It’s like a quarterback and a wide receiver. Sometimes it chemistry, but usually it’s just a lot of hard work.”
Clouston said he thinks the new faces and combos could give “a shot of enthusiasm.”
Hear and there
Former first-round pick Jim O’Brien was among the six players assigned to Binghamton of the AHL yesterday. Certainly, it’s not a good thing when a former first-rounder is included in the second wave of cuts (O’Brien was the 29th pick in the 2007 draft). The Senators’ top pick in 2008, defenceman Erik Karlsson, seems to have a job that’s his to lose. O’Brien, 20, has been slowed by injury, but has hardly been ripping it up even at the junior level where he was a respectable point-a-game man in Seattle of the WHL last year. Hey, some players mature more quickly than others and it appears O’Brien is destined to spend a couple of years on the farm. But the 2007 draft is looming for now as a black hole in the Senators’ pipeline. After O’Brien, the Senators took Ruslan Bashkirov (60th), Louie Caporusso (90th) and Ben Blood (120th). The latter two are still in school, Caporusso at Michigan and Blood at North Dakota.